From Comcast SportsNetCLEVELAND (AP) -- Anderson Varejao's season rapidly spiraled from a probable All-Star appearance to over.The Cavaliers' hustling center, who led the NBA in rebounding before he went down last month with what appeared to be nothing more than a bruised knee, remained hospitalized Monday with a blood clot in his lower right lung, a health scare that will force him to miss the rest of this season.Varejao, who underwent surgery on a torn leg muscle on Jan. 10, has been at The Cleveland Clinic since last Thursday. The Cavs said he will likely remain in the hospital for several more days as he receives treatment. Varejao is expected to make a full recovery, but he will remain on blood thinning medications for at least three months, the team said Monday.The loss of the 6-foot-11 Varejao is a crushing blow to the young Cavs, who are just 10-32."Losing him already was bad enough for us," star point guard Kyrie Irving said. "The news got worse today. We wish him the best. We're all going to be there for him morale-wise, just try to be there for him as best as we can as teammates. That's all we can do right now."Despite Varejao being admitted to the hospital four days ago, the Cavs did not reveal he was still there until shortly before Monday's workout at their training facility.Varejao was having an All-Star-caliber season before he injured his leg on Dec. 18 against Toronto. Team doctors initially diagnosed the injury as a bruise and expected Varejao to make a quick recovery. However, tests revealed an uncommon split in his quadriceps muscle which required an operation. Varejao was expected to be out eight weeks before he developed the blood clot following the surgery.General manager Chris Grant said the team is "fairly confident" the clot was not a reaction from surgery.This is the third straight season Varejao has missed extended time with injuries. The Brazilian sat out 41 games last season with a broken wrist, and he was sidelined for 51 games in 2011 after tearing a tendon in his ankle while running after practice."We're just feeling bad for Andy," Cavs coach Byron Scott said following practice. "I think the world of Andy, especially with the way he plays. My heart just goes out to him. He's had some bad luck in the last three years. I'm sure it's devastating to him. I feel real bad for him."Varejao was averaging 14.4 rebounds and 14.1 points in 25 games before he got hurt. There wasn't a center in the Eastern Conference playing better than the fun-loving 30-year-old, who has developed into much more than a competent reserve -- when he's healthy.If he had been able to keep playing, there's little doubt Varejao, acquired by Cleveland in 2004 in a trade with Orlando, would have been named an All-Star reserve this week.Grant pointed out that Varejao's injuries have been unrelated."They've all really been freak things," he said. "He's frustrated. We're frustrated for him and with him. We would love to have him out there, particularly the type of year he was having. He's really come into his own as a leader on the court, so it's difficult. But at the same time we believe in him as a guy, we know what he can do. He's played in a lot of big games for us, into the Finals. We'll continue to support him."Cleveland, which has one of the league's youngest rosters, just completed a 1-4 road trip. The Cavs will host Boston on Tuesday and play 10 of their next 12 games at home.Varejao's injury has allowed Scott to give extra playing time to second-year forward Tristan Thompson and rookie Tyler Zeller. The Cavs, though, have been plagued by wild inconsistency, especially down the stretch in games they've let slip away."We've made strides in the right direction, but we just have to be more consistent game-to-game," said Irving, who is averaging 23.1 points, 5.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game. "I say it all the time, we've proven we can play with the best in the league, we just have to put two halves together. We're still figuring that out."They'll have to do it without Varejao, their never-stopping big man who has managed to stay positive despite his latest medical setback."His spirits are up," said Grant. "He's frustrated. He wants to play; he wants to be with his teammates on the court. But he's such a good guy. Every time you see him he's still got that big smile."
There was plenty of "Willson Contreras: Future MVP?" discussion during spring training.
Any time a player in his age-25 year season hits 21 home runs with a .276/.356/.499 slash line at a premium defensive position (catcher) despite missing about a month with a hamstring injury (as Contreras did in 2017), the baseball world takes notice. The notion that he might one day garner MVP recognition was nothing to be laughed at.
Through the first few months of 2018, Contreras did much of the same. He had a small drop off in power, but he still had his moments and was solid overall. Over a three-game stretch in the beginning of May, he went 10-for-15 with three doubles, two triples, three home runs and 11 RBIs. He was the first Cubs catcher with five triples before the All-Star break since Gabby Hartnett in 1935. He even started the All-Star Game — and became the second player in MLB history (after Terry Steinbach) to homer in his first career All-Star at-bat after having homered in his first career MLB at-bat (back in 2016).
But instead of cruising along at a performance level about 20 percent better than league average, something happened.
Here are Contreras' Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) numbers from the past three seasons (100 is league average, any point above or below is equal to a percentage point above or below league average):
Here’s that breakdown in terms of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage:
But what caused the downturn in production?
There were some underlying characteristics of his work, particularly a mixture of significantly higher ground-ball rate, lower average exit velocity and bad luck on balls in play which led to the decrease in production.
Also notable is that after the Midsummer Classic, the hits stopped coming on pitches on the outer third. Dividing the strike zone into thirds (this doesn’t include pitches outside the zone), this is what his batting average and slugging percentage looked like:
Granted, it’s not a significant sample, but it’s there.
One non-offensive thing that sticks out is his workload.
*missed 29 games in August and September with hamstring injury
It was the most innings caught by a Cubs receiver since Geovany Soto logged 1,150.1 innings in his Rookie of the Year season in 2008. Three other catchers besides Contreras logged at least 1,000 innings behind the plate in 2018: Jonathan Lucroy, Yasmani Grandal and Yadier Molina. While they combined to fare better prior to the All-Star break, it wasn’t nearly as precipitous a drop as Contreras suffered.
Lucroy, Grandal and Molina combined to slash .255/.322/.416 before the All-Star Game and .239/.317/.405 after it.
That could possibly have a little something to do with it though.
There’s no way to be entirely sure and to what extent each of the things listed above affected Contreras last season. Could it have been something completely different? Could it have been a minor nagging injury? A mental roadblock? Too many constant adjustments throughout the season? The questions remain. A new voice in newly appointed hitting coach Anthony Iapoce might be just what Contreras, who is entering his age-27 season, needs to get back on track and reestablish his spot among the best catchers in the major leagues.
During the first week of my rookie season with the Cubs, my teammate, the late Frank Castillo was running his sprints in the outfield in between starts. We were home at Wrigley and as was customary, a pitcher would do pole to poles, meaning he would run from the foul line to the other foul line while following the bend of the warning track. In this case, Frankie was running during batting practice after the fans were let into the ballpark.
The bleacher bums, known for their relentless in-your-face attitude towards visiting outfielders, were supportive and understanding when it came to the home squad, despite the so-so season we were having to date in 1996. When Frank, who had 1 win and 9 losses up until that point, ran by the left field section of these diehards, I heard a fan clearly tell Frank, “That’s OK Frank, next game, you will be 2-9!” It was loud enough for me to hear from where I was shagging fly balls nearby. I was surprised that this group of rough-and-tumble fans still had optimistic words of support.
Yet this was consistent with everything I had seen from the Cubs fans on my way up from the minor leagues, particularly when I was interacting with the fans during major league spring training before I was called up. Positive, hopeful, worried, waiting for bad luck to dash hopes, loyal and always with kind words, no matter how you were playing.
As a player who was just getting his first taste of major league action, this was comforting. The idea that I could make mistakes, that I had room to fall short and support would still be there, but you also wondered where the line was between complacency and patience, rebuilding and folding, hope and naïveté.
Since I was new enough to just be taking it in, this was clouded by my own fandom. Like most new arrivals, everyone on your team is an All-Star in your mind. You are not sure where you will fit in yet, even with an abundance of self-confidence. Playing with teammates that I had imitated in Wiffle ball or rolled dice with their card on my table during a teenage Strat-O-Matic game, made me recognize that I was surrounded by greatness, in fact, icons. Sandberg, Grace, Dunston, Sosa. These were household names in the baseball mind of my childhood. How could we not have high expectations with these guys?
I was not objective enough to analyze the bullpen or the backup catcher, or how this team hit with runners in scoring position. That was past data, we have a future, and it could all change next week, right?
But there is something different about high expectations when you are on the back end of years of winning. When you are on the heels of a World Championship like the 2016 Cubs produced.
The language the Cubs players used throughout the 2018 campaign and after they were knocked out reflected the highest of expectation. The idea that every year is not just a playoff appearance, a 90-win season, a better-than-last-year achievement. It is a year measured by the singular accomplishment of being a world champion.
When a team has rattled off a few years in a row of going deep into the postseason with a roster full of young players that could have just as easily stopped and taken pictures for simply being happy to be in “The Show,” it says a lot that these Cubs players arrived expecting much more. Age was just a number, underscoring that not only was winning aspirational, but it was a destination that was pre-set, as if they bought a plane ticket and anything other than a trophy was an unauthorized detour.
Along my professional career, I heard a lot of motivational spring training speeches (at least 14 of them). Every organization says they have assembled the best staff on Earth. Everyone says they have acquired the best talent in the Milky Way. Everyone looks around and sees top draft picks, legends of the past and a few guys that may be in the Hall of Fame one day. Yet all 30 teams are saying the same thing and only one can remain standing when all is said and done.
In today’s era of draft-and-develop over a patient-but-direct timeline, it may come down to whether a young player arrives at the right time in the cycle of his organization. Is he there for the upswing? If you play long enough, every team has a least one upswing, even if it lasts only a year. But you must be a core player, otherwise the trade machine could gobble up your timing.
Regardless, it makes a difference when a team has done it before. It makes expectation a word more akin to destiny. The team does not have to accomplish this championship goal by waving a magic wand. They believe it is now by repeating history, or at least as Mark Twain once referenced, “rhyming” with history. And despite baseball’s fascination and respect for its past, a player’s history is often measured in single-digit years.
After they were quickly eliminated from contention, the 2018 Cubs made it loud and clear. The ending was a huge disappointment. 95 wins was not good enough, a Wild Card was not champagne worthy.
Yet I cannot help but think back to Frank Castillo and the fan that up until that time in 1996, never saw such a run that this 2018 unit has seen over the past few years. This fan often exuded a sentiment that being relentlessly positive was important and a 95 win-season and an early playoff exit still generated satisfaction. Certainly when I was a rookie arrival, if we won 95 wins that year, 95 major league wins was more than I could have fathomed as a young baseball fan when I was in Little League.
The Cubs have taken steps to show that satisfaction was not achieved in 2018 and there are consequences. Hitting coach Chili Davis was let go, more changes probably on the horizon. Fans can rest assured that the organization’s leadership is playing for the era of “now,” and they require no pat on the back for winning 95 games, in fact, they are declaring that the basking period of 2016 is officially over.